Spikenard - More than a costly perfume
by Margot Cioccio
It was probably 3 years ago in a service prior to Easter and our pastor brought in a bottle Spikenard, it was my first encounter with an essential oil. The tiny bottle was passed person by person through the sanctuary. As people rubbed a drop on their hands the room became filled with its earthy aroma. Spikenard is an odd smell to the modern nose of our day and age. To me it smells like an ancient library. The dry dusty smell of old paper, ink and dust. In my mind the smell of the Ancient of Days and the libraries of the wisdom of time and eternity. It is not your common citrus or flowery smell. It smells of earth and its musty but I particularly love it because I imagine it to be the smell of Jesus prior to the crucifixion.
I thought I would look at where Spikenard is found in the bible. I have gotten off on a goose chase trying to sort out Mary’s and Simons and exactly how many times Jesus was anointed. It would be so much simpler if the characters in the Bible each had their own unique name. Really was Mary the only girl name out their at that time. I’ve read commentaries from various camps and I admit I would like it to be more black and white but I seem to find a sea of grey and the lines around the edges are kind of blurred. I find myself asking who were these people who surrounded Jesus, we get just bits and crumbs of their stories in the Bible.
In the Old Testament we hear of Spikenard in Song of Solomon 1:12 “While the king sat at his table, My spikenard sent forth its fragrance.” Truly it is a distinct and lofty fragrance.
Again in Song of Solomon 4:13-15 with others that are called there the finest spices. I think about how we might make our lives a fragrance that is wafted abroad. I can open any of my essential oil bottles and a single drop of the highly concentrated, steam distilled oil is enough to fill the room. I am amazed at the healing properties of essential oils - that God knew and put in the essence of plants the very natural chemicals that could heal people. It makes me wonder where else God has hidden things for us to find.
Song of Solomon 4:13 -15
“Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
With choice fruits, henna with nard plants,
14 Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.
15“You are a garden spring,
A well of fresh water,
And streams flowing from Lebanon.”
16“Awake, O north wind,
And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance,
Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden
And eat its choice fruits!”
Moving to the New Testament, there are two verses that actually mention Spikenard.
It is confusing as to if this anointing by a woman happened one time and its all different versions of the same story or if there was more than one occurrence possibly as many as three. I’ve read a number of commentaries and some of them are quite dizzying. So here are the two verses that specifically mention Spikenard. Same event or different I will leave it to you to decide for yourself.
Mark 14:3 And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.
John 12:3 Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.
In one story it is the feet that get anointed in the other its the head. In one the woman is unnamed and the other is Mary. What we do know is that it was a beautiful act of gratitude and worship. Most people came to Jesus wanting something - she or they came to offer a beautiful costly precious gift. Jesus says in Mark 14:9 I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.
Spikenard oil or ointment was a type of investment that people with means would have procured. They didn’t have banks in those days and things like costly oils were good investments. They held their value and didn’t take up much space and you could sell or trade it for things you might need in the future. The disciples talk about how it could have been sold for a years wages and used to feed the poor. One had to go all the way to India to get Spikenard. I wonder how these women or one woman, Mary came to have it in their or her possession. Spikenard is still pretty expensive it cost about forty dollars for a half ounce of 100% Spikenard essential oil. It says that Mary used a pound of Spikenard. There is an earlier story in Luke 7:36-50 of a sinful woman who comes to a dinner at the house of a Pharisee named Simon who pours perfume on Jesus feet. I think this is a separate incident and who knows what kind of perfume she might have used. In this telling there is no fuss over the cost of the perfume. Rather the fuss is over Jesus letting a sinful woman touch him. In the later stories just days before the Crucifixion it seems unlikely that two different women would anoint Jesus a few days apart from each other. In these a big deal is made of the cost of the Spikenard. One story mentions Mary, and its unclear if they were at her house or at Simons and was this the same Simon from the earlier story. I admit that I have already spent way to much time trying to sort it all out.
Spikenard is an Indian plant called Nardostachy jatamansi and it is grows in the Himalayan mountains. The word for “spikenard” in Greek, means genuine and pure. Spikenard is not simply a costly fragrant perfume. It is a medicinal oil with many health benefits made from the Spikenard plant. It is antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and a sedative. It is also used as a deodorant, a laxative and it stimulates hormone production in the reproductive organs.
Its can be used for treating a variety of health issues. I don’t know if it was commonly known when Jesus was anointed that it had healing and sedative aspect as we know today. I’m sure God knew.
In John 12:7 Jesus says “Leave her alone, It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. Since the movie the DiVinci Code there is all kinds of speculations about Mary and Jesus. Verses like this one make you wonder if Jesus and some of his followers were planing for his burial ahead of time. Is there deeper significance to this beautiful act that is left out of the story? History gets a bit muddled in my opinion the stories that we know are those of the victors of any conflict. Sometimes the truth is lost or hidden in the shadows of history and we can speculate till the cows come home but it is only just that speculation. I believe that God has recorded each of these stories and if there is more to be known I suspect the place to find the truth is at his feet. Which is a beautiful example that is set for us by Mary who brings her devotion as a fragrant offering to Jesus.
Psalm 141:2 says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” As I think of the wafting of garden fragrances and my prayers rising like incense. I think about how much plant material must be gathered to make small little bottles of essential oils. In the case of roses it takes 60,000 roses to produce just 1 ounce of oil, and ten thousand pounds of rose blossoms to produce 1 pound of oil. I couldn't find the statistics for Spikenard only that it is endangered due to poor harvesting practices. If my math is correct based on what a half ounce costs a pound would even today cost $1,280 dollars. So me coming to Jesus with my tiny half ounce bottle of Spikenard that I dole out by individual drops certainly pales to Mary's extravagant anointing.
My final thought is simply what if God has some process by which to distill all the prayers of the saints. In Revelation 5:8 “And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.” I wonder how long did it take to create 24 bowls of concentrated prayer. Often it is life’s difficulties that brings us to our knees and it is the in crushing, pressing, steaming that fragrance and oil is extracted, perhaps it is true of our prayers as well.